Early European contact brought fur trade and a short-lived time of prosperity for the Potawatomi people. The first account of the Potawatomi people was by Samuel de Champlain, a French explorer traveling the Great Lakes in 1615.
The first contact with the Potawatomi wasn't until 1634 when Jean Nicolet, a French explorer and interpreter, visited Green Bay, Wisconsin. The Potawatomi moved into Wisconsin because of pressure and raids from the Iriquois Confederacy. While there, they met Fr. Claude Allouez, a Jesuit priest, and in 1670 established their first contact with Christianity.
By 1679, Potawatomi Chief Onanghisse and French explorer René-Robert Cavelier Sieur de La Salle had developed fur trading in Wisconsin. Potawatomi villages were central to this campaign and often used as an area to stockpile fur. This trading, and other trading with Europeans led to intermarriage between the two cultures.
While European settlement allowed new alliances and lucrative avenues of trade to develop, it also caused new conflicts over territory and resources that resulted in an exodus by the native population to avoid the detrimental conditions that accompanied political and social instability. By the end of the eighteenth century, the foundations for Neshnabe social structure were changed forever. Consensus traditionally governed Potawatomi village life-a system that worked as long as individuals who dissented were allowed to leave, new villages were free to form, and tribal leaders who disappointed the community could be cast aside. European settlement significantly constrained Native mobility, eventually causing infighting and destruction of old alliances, all of which greatly hindered the structure of tribal communities. Turmoil ensued.
The structure of Neshnabe society, the existence of strong warrior societies, the sheer numbers of native peoples in the Great Lakes region and the superior knowledge of the terrain and warfare tactics conducive to fighting in the area meant that for many years, the colonial powers vying for control of lands in what would become the Old Northwest were forced to deal with tribes on a government-to-government basis.
From 1628 to 1815, the Potawatomi participated in nine major conflicts.
The Beaver Wars (1628-1701
Seeking to expand their range and broker the thriving fur trade, the Dutch supported Iroquois engaged in one of the earliest and longest territorial conflicts with the French allied confederated Algonquin nations. Resulting from this war, displaced Potawatomi communities emigrated to and initially populated the northern and western shores of Lake Michigan.
The Fox Wars (1712-1737
Led by prominent warriors Mackisabe [Eagle], Winemac [Catfish] and Madouche [Sweet One], the Potawatomi, along with allied France and other Great Lakes nations, enlisted to quell disruptive Meskwaki [Fox] attacks on the lucrative western fur trade and neighboring tribes. Angered that their Siouan enemies acquired weapons and supplies via the trade network, the Meskwaki raided, killed and pillaged villages, merchants and trade routes for two decades, implementing full scale retaliation. Despite numerous attempts to draw peace, the allied forces decided genocide was the only solution forcing the Meskwaki to seek refuge among the Sauk. However, as the plan began to materialize and the Meskwaki were reduced to less than sixty warriors, Potawatomi and other tribes took pity on the decimated people and came to their aid, providing security and delegating for peace.
The French and Indian War (1754-1763)
As the British colonies expanded and outgrew their western borders, expeditions to secure and safeguard land and resources developed into regional battles between the colonies of New France and Great Britain.
Battle of the Monongahela - July 9, 1755
It is said that a Potawatomi warrior dreamt and foresaw the battle. Using the dream as a battle plan, the French and Indian forces ambushed the British at dawn, defeating the young Virginia Colonel George Washington, and killing Major General Edward Braddock.
Battle of Fort William Henry - August 3-9, 1757
With a force of over two thousand Native warriors including Potawatomi leaders Wakwshe [Fox], Nanaquiba [Water Moccasin] and Nenewas [Little Man], French General Louis-Joseph de Montcalm sieged and took control of the pivotal fort.
Pontiac's War (1754-1763)
Understanding that the French and Indian War was more than provincial disputes between European nations, but a cultural battle between Native people and eventual Anglo assimilation, a Great Lakes Native confederacy led by Odawa leader and warrior Pontiac assembled and continued to fight to preserve their way of life.
Battle of the Fort Detroit - May 9 - October 31, 1763
In an attempt to drive the British from the territory and illustrate the power of the confederated Native forces, Pontiac, Detroit Potawatomi leader Nenewas and over nine hundred warriors sieged the fort for over five months, eventually concluding in a stalemate.
Battle of Fort St. Joseph - May 25, 1763
Under the guise of friendship, St. Joseph Potawatomi led by Washee [Swan] attacked and took control of the garrison.
American Revolutionary War (1775-1783)
With war declared between the American Colonies and Britain, Potawatomi support divided geographically and economically. Aside from those exacting retribution, villages located in the vicinity of key U.S. and English military forts, such as the Detroit and St. Joseph Potawatomi, were often enticed or pressured into allying with neighboring garrisons. Additionally, communities or individuals reliant on Anglo goods for survival or affluence were equally motivated to join a cause. However, far western Potawatomi villages led by Segnak the Elder [Blackbird] and Naakewoin [Wind Striker] utilized diplomatic principles and distance to stay seemingly neutral.
Raid of Fort St. Joesph - February 12, 1781
To expel British traders from the area and reduce their kinsmen’s dependence on Anglo goods, Spanish allied Segnak the Elder, Naakewoin and 60 Three Fires warriors sieged and took control of the fort in the name of New Spain.
Battle of Blue Licks - August 19, 1782
One of the last battles and Native victories of the American Revolution, this conflict was the final attempt to force American rebel colonists from present-day Kentucky and Western Virginia. Famed explorer and frontiersman Daniel Boone was active in, and a survivor of, this battle.
Northwest Indian Wars (1785-1795)
Post revolution America was riddled with conflict as settlers began encroaching on Native lands, unlawfully ceded to the United States by Great Britain. Rejecting American control and settlement in the Northwest Territory, a confederation of Great Lakes tribes, including Detroit and St. Joseph Potawatomi, engaged in a campaign of violent raids that culminated into a series of battles, ultimately warranting U.S. military action. Led by the renowned Miami warrior and headman Mshikenikwe [Little Turtle], the tribesmen dealt the most significant defeats in American military history to date.
Harmar's Campaign - October 19-22, 1790
Attempting to suppress Native attacks on settlers and garrisons in the Ohio Territory, General Josiah Harmar engaged in numerous ineffective retaliatory assaults on major tribal villages that amassed overwhelming casualties and defeat.
St. Clair's Defeat - November 4 1791
Humiliated by the defeat of Harmar, the U.S. commissioned another major expedition against the Northwest tribes under the command of General Arthur St. Clair. Near present Fort Recovery, Ohio, Mshikenikwe, Shawnee leader Weyapiersenwah [Blue Jacket] and a force of over 1,000 inflicted greater losses than the previous year. Due to the military disaster, the United States ordered the first internal investigation of its executive branch.
Osage War (1793-1794)
Intent on protecting the bustling creole commerce of the Louisiana Territory from Osage incursions, Spanish officials exploited the traditional Osage/Potawatomi blood feud and enlisted feared Muskodan warriors Main Poc [Withered Hand], Nuscotomek [Mad Sturgeon] and Segnak the Younger [Black Bird], among others, to purge all militant Osage from New Spain.
Battle of Tippecanoe (November 7th, 1811)
In an effort to weaken the Nativist movement led by Tenskwatawa [The Open Door] “The Shawnee Prophet”, his brother and warrior Tecumseh [Panther Across the Sky], and their field general, Potawatomi Wabeno Main Poc, Indiana Territorial Governor William Henry Harrison and nearly one thousand troops marched on the Nativist capital known as Prophetstown. Intercepting the troops and mounting a defensive counter attack were hundreds of Native warriors, led by Potawatomi headmen Wabaunsee [He Walks at Dawn], Shabbone [Breaking Through] and Neeboash [Humble Death].
War of 1812 (1812-1815
With the United States and Great Britain on the brink of a second war, tensions between Northwestern tribes and settlers reached an impasse. Angered by their defeat at Tippecanoe, Tecumseh, Main Poc and their Native confederacy increased assaults on settlers in Illinois, Indiana and Ohio, forcing many to sell their homesteads and flee the Territory. All attempts by the U.S. to halt hostilities with peace negotiations were futile as the Confederacy secured their alliance with Great Britain and planned for war. When war was declared, a simultaneous preemptive strike on all major U.S. forts was set into action.
Battle of Fort Detroit - August 15-16, 1812
Considered an inspirational victory for the Native confederacy, Tecumseh, his lieutenant Shabbone and Main Poc, along with over 600 warriors, sieged and gained critical control of the fort and surrounding area.
Battle of Fort Dearborn - August 15, 1812
Led by Segnak the Younger, Nuscotomek and prominent Gigo [Fish] Dodem member Naunongee, a Native force of over five hundred attacked the evacuating garrison, inflicting heavy casualties and seizing the fort in less than one hour.
Battle of the Thames - October 5, 1813
Outnumbered three to one, Tecumseh, Shabbone, Nuscotomek and the British-allied Native confederacy made a final stand to retain control of the Northwest Territory. Facing extreme casualties, among them Tecumseh and Wyandot leader Round Head, the Confederacy retreated to their respective villages to plan their next assault.